(Given at Spring Lake Village Senior Community to an interfaith group on Sunday morning, April 24)
I hope you’ll indulge me as I share something about Passover. It is far and away my favorite Jewish holiday—indeed my favorite holiday. Always has been, since the family seders at my grandparents’ house, when I couldn’t understand a word my grandfather speed-chanted in Hebrew and Aramaic from the haggadah, as I sat across the table from my cousins, next to my sisters and mother, waiting for the moments when we could burst into song with the Four Questions and Dayenu, dip the wine for the ten plagues…and eat my grandmother’s gefilte fish, matzah ball soup and brisket.
How many of you did I lose already with words or references that are foreign to you? So sorry. Let’s backtrack.
Jews have been observing this holiday for more than 3,000 years. We take it with us wherever we go. And since one of our best skills is to take what is good from every culture we live in, we do it differently everywhere, except we have this one guidebook, the haggadah, which means the telling.
As you heard in the reading from Scripture, this week, we are observing our liberation from slavery, and all the steps that were required for the Pharaoh to let us go. It took a lot of work, suffering and the calling up of the powers of the natural world, and finally a few leaps of faith for freedom to come.
We are exhorted in this and other texts to repeat the story of our liberation to our children, so that they understand what we went through. So I teach it to my daughter, and pray she will do the same to hers.
And not that I just teach the story of Exodus, but that I understand that it is also our freedom story, not just our ancestors’. And this means that I also need to teach her about the ongoing need for liberation.
The story is our version of reality—that we were a slave people who were liberated with a strong hand and an outstretched arm with signs and miracles, transformed from a large family to a people, a nation. And so the Torah—the first five books of the Bible—exhorts us repeatedly that we must be kind to the widow, orphan and stranger (think refugee)—a trio of terms that represent all the most vulnerable in society—because we were strangers in a strange land, and have been strangers in all the lands of the earth since.
To me, this is the essence of being Jewish, and the essence of what it means to be a human being: to help others attain what is good in this world, to accept that we have a responsibility to do so and to recognize the wonders and miracles all around us.
So we gather—indeed Jews who don’t do anything else Jewish the rest of the year gather—to celebrate this ritual every year, at the full moon in the month of Nisan, last Friday, to retell the story, full of symbols and rituals. And with 3,000 years’ experience, we have lots of symbols that have lots of meanings associated with them.
So I’m going to define some of the terms I loaded into my introduction…Seder: that’s the ritual and feast we hold on the first, and sometimes second night of Passover. Seder is the Hebrew word for order. So the seder has a precise order to it. But it didn’t start that way. It started in the wilderness… and then continued in the Promised Land, in the days of the Temple (built by King Solomon the first time (sort of around 900 or so BCE), destroyed in 586 BCE by the Assyrians, rebuilt 70 years later, and then destroyed in 70 of the Common Era by the Romans)… Anyway, in those days we—all several thousand of us—would gather 3 times a year from all over the country – which was something like the area from here east to Sacramento and north to Eureka…Anyway, everyone would show up to Jerusalem, and we’d gather near the temple for a massive barbecue: roasted lamb, vegetables and matzah, a couple of eggs. A matzah wrap. After we’d all eaten, we burst into songs of praise, and have a real sense of community and a sense of the divine.
After the temple was destroyed that second time, we took our meat, vegetables and matzah and worked to recapture the sense of community and connection to the divine mystery. Rather than a casual meal, we put order to it—a step by step guide to invest holiness into our actions.
We light candles, ask questions, drink 4 cups of wine, retell the story…The children—usually the youngest, ask Four Questions about why this night is different from all other nights. Why do we eat only matzah, the unleavened bread? (because we had to leave Egypt in a hurry, concerned Pharaoh would change his mind again)… Why do we eat bitter herbs? (to remind us of the bitterness of slavery)… Why do we dip our vegetables twice? (too many reasons to list here—a sample – to remember the tears of slavery and the sweetness of freedom) and finally Why do we recline, like the Greeks at their banquets? Because now we are free to do so.
When I was a child, in a family with 5 granddaughters born within 7 years, the competition for being the youngest capable of singing the questions in Hebrew was fierce. I am still sad that I only had one year of performing the Hebrew version of this before my cousin Robin succeeded me.
From the questions of our children—or anyone young at heart, we proceed to tell the story.
But, as I stressed earlier, we have many ways to implement each step on the order of the seder. There are book shelves full of different haggadahs—family haggadahs, singing haggadahs, art haggadahs, orthodox, conservative, reform, reconstructionist, renewal, secular humanist, feminist, vegetarian… you name it… And for my family seder, I have written one, adapting from many sources, and revising, adding, changing each year.
A key story from our rabbinic sources tells of the seder at Bnai Brak in Israel, with the famous Rabbi Akiva and 3 of his friends (all important in their own right). They stayed up all night talking, in a time the Romans were very suspicious of Jewish gatherings, and, in addition to telling the story of our freedom, they used the seder to plan the Bar Kochba revolt. This apochryphal story teaches us that the seder can’t be stagnant, but must embrace the urgency of now.
So on Friday night, we talked about poisoned water in Flint and elsewhere, the refugee problem, modern slavery, climate change, and so much more. When we recount the 10 plagues, we tied each plague brought upon the Egyptians to lead to our freedom to modern plagues facing humanity today. As a guest pointed out, it does not seem to be a parallel structure: the wild hail that killed livestock and farms shouldn’t be compared to the climate change we’re facing, because the hail was to bring Pharaoh and his people to their knees for their intransigence…
I didn’t have an answer to her on Friday night, but I’ve thought about it since then. I believe the connection between modern plagues and the biblical ones speaks to the involvement of all Egyptians in the corrupt, idol worshipping system. They were too beholden to Pharaoh, to the mistaken belief that he was a god of some sort. If the struggle were just between God and Pharaoh, the Egyptians were as much innocent bystanders as the Hebrews. BUT, the Egyptian populace believed they had some sway over Pharaoh, and some ability to act on their own to protect themselves and their families. Therefore, maybe convincing them was part of the message.
In the same way, climate change, or the refugee disaster, or any of the problems facing the world today, may be in large part a responsibility of national governments, but we are not innocent or blameless about many of the ills facing society, either. We can make our voices heard, we can take steps to make changes, but too often, we don’t. Just as last plague finally required us to participate in our own liberation, so must we do so today, for ourselves and others. In the past, we had to show our belief that there was something greater than Pharaoh, we had to show up and be counted. As we do today.
While the seder reminds us of the Jewish liberation and urges us to be involved in such efforts in our own time, it also serves up meals of physical and spiritual delights. Matzah ball soup alone is a miracle of culinary creativity.
But for me, it is the spiritual lessons that have captured my heart in the last few years.
For example, that matzah that we baked in a hurry. We can also think of it as an exercise in eliminating the puffery in our egos.
Or, the haggadah demands that we notice the pain of others, even our oppressors, even the Egyptians. We have a ritual of dipping out a drop of wine for each one of the 10 plagues, to acknowledge that our cup of joy cannot overflow if our freedom comes at the expense of others. A rabbinic story recounts the angels rejoicing as the Egyptian Army perish as the waters overwhelmed them. In the middle of their happy dance, God rebuked them, “My handiwork—the Egyptians are perishing and you rejoice!?!” This story instructs us that we are not supposed to rejoice at others’ suffering.
And then we reach Dayenu, a song of gratitude… Dayenu means “it would have been enough.” Over 15 verses, we hear… …
If God had brought us out of Egypt, but not executed justice upon the Egyptians, it would have been enough…If God had split the sea for us, but not led us to dry land, dayenu! It would have been enough… If God had given us Shabbat, but had not led us to Mt. Sinai, Dayenu… If God had led us to Mt. Sinai, but not given us the torah, Dayenu, dayenu, dayenu.
Each verse represents something for which we are grateful, and something that alone would have been enough…Right here in the Passover seder, we have an important gratitude practice.
Do you know what Egypt means in Hebrew? The word is Mitzrayim… it means the narrow places. Therefore, we can understand leaving Egypt as leaving the narrow places that constrict us. What would that place be for you?
On Friday, I asked people what makes them feel free. I also asked more rhetorically, because we didn’t all know each other well:
- Where have you been a slave to fears, prisoner of your own private pain or public shame?
- What is holding you back from being freer, happier, more creative, more alive?
It is these questions that bring the seder into focus for me. Throughout the Jewish calendar, each holiday gives us a particular opportunity to explore spiritually critical questions. Passover does it with family ritual, special foods and piercing questions. We laugh and are serious, because we want to make sure our children learn and we make sure we never forget what it feels like to be a slave, to find liberation, and to march to freedomland.
May you all take the time to ponder these spiritual delights, chew on the possibilities and come to find your own liberation.